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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The promise of a new generation of low-cost, long-lasting batteries is catalyzing a long-awaited shift to electric vehicles.

Why it matters: Two big obstacles stand in the way of widespread EV adoption: cost and driving range. But steady advancements in battery technology are already helping to mitigate both issues, and could make electric cars more affordable and desirable to consumers within just a few years.

  • The target: batteries that cost less than $100 per kilowatt-hour to produce, putting the cost of owning an EV on par with a conventional vehicle.
  • The industry might not hit the $100 target until 2030, predicts Boston Consulting Group. But by 2022 or 2023, cheaper batteries will cause EV sales to take off, growing to one-third of the global market by 2025 and one-half by 2030, says BCG.

What's happening: The most anticipated battery news could come Sept. 22 from Tesla, the global leader in electric vehicles. It plans to share its latest innovations at a special "Battery Day" tied to its annual shareholder meeting.

  • CEO Elon Musk hinted in a Tweet this week that big leaps in energy density are close, and suggested these vastly improved batteries could be mass-produced within three to four years.

We've already seen a barrage of EV battery milestones in 2020, with more news expected in the coming weeks:

  • General Motors in March introduced its new lower-cost Ultium batteries, packaged in a modular EV platform, that will enable GM to sell a new crop of EVs profitably from Day One.
  • Newcomer Lucid Motors says its Lucid Air luxury sedan, arriving Sept. 9, will set a new benchmark with a 517-mile driving range. CEO Peter Rawlinson is considering licensing Lucid's super-efficient electric drivetrain to accelerate demand for mass-market EVs.
  • Volkswagen's ID4, debuting Sept. 23, is an affordable, compact SUV built on a new electric vehicle platform that will underpin 75 new VW models by 2029.

The big picture: Steady advancements in battery innovation — rather than a single breakthrough — have brought the industry to the cusp of widespread EV adoption.

  • Batteries require a series of tradeoffs: a fast-charging battery could be too expensive, for example, and a long-range battery might take up too much space. Getting the balance right is the trick.
  • The ultimate goal: the "million-mile battery" — one that can last 30 years and enjoy second, or even third, lives powering the electric grid.

What to watch: The next wave of innovation could come from the use of new materials like silicon and graphene to replace nickel and cobalt.

  • A handful of Asian companies including CATL, LG Chem, Samsung, Panasonic and SK Innovation are likely to continue to dominate the race.
  • But a few U.S. startups are working on promising alternatives, including Sila Nanotechnologies, NanoGraf and Enevate.

The bottom line: The EV tipping point is almost here, says BCG's managing director Aakash Arora.

  • "Three years from now, there will be no debate that buying a gasoline car is an economically worse decision than buying an electric car."

Go deeper

Ben Geman, author of Generate
Dec 8, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Battery startup QuantumScape claims breakthrough

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

QuantumScape, a battery startup whose backers include VW and Bill Gates, announced it has made a major breakthrough in developing solid-state technology.

Why it matters: Effective solid-state batteries are something of a holy grail thanks to the promise of more energy density, durability and safety than existing battery tech.

Air quality alerts issued as California fires threaten more sequoias

The Windy Fire blazes through the Long Meadow Grove of giant sequoia trees near the Trail of 100 Giants in Sequoia National Forest, near California Hot Springs, on Tuesday. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images

Two wildfires were threatening California's sequoia trees over overnight — hours after authorities issued fresh evacuation orders and warnings, along with air quality alerts.

The big picture: Air quality alerts were issued Wednesday for the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley as smoke from the Windy and KNP Complex fires resulted in hazy, "ash-filled" skies from Fresno to Tulare, the Los Angeles Times notes.

Asymptomatic Florida students exposed to COVID no longer have to quarantine

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a September news conference in Viera, Fla. Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) announced Wednesday an emergency order allowing parents to decide whether their children should quarantine or stay in school if they're exposed to COVID-19, provided they're asymptomatic.

Why it matters: People infected with COVID-19 can spread the coronavirus starting from two days before they display symptoms, according to the CDC. Quarantine helps prevent the virus' spread.